Home & Design December 16, 2008

Sound Advice

Minimizing Noise

One of the great joys of living in the Wood River Valley is our proximity to nature and wildlife. For many of us, it’s right outside our door. With no bugs to irritate us or humidity to dampen our brow, we can sit out on the deck at all hours of the day, basking in the soothing sound of water cascading over rocks, aspen leaves rustling in the breeze, or the musical trill of a myrtle warbler.

But, as the Valley continues to grow, other sounds—manmade sounds—are also beginning to fill the air. A robin’s cheerful chirping at dawn’s early light is soon overcome by the drawn-out moan of jake brakes—and the din only grows as the sky brightens over the foothills of the Pioneer Mountains.

Cars fill the highway, swishing past one another as many of us make our morning commute. Landscapers rumble to and from their jobs, revving up lawnmowers and chainsaws. Construction workers fire nail guns as they work on a new luxury home or a remodel down the street. And, occasionally, a jet roars overhead as it takes off from Friedman Memorial Airport, ferrying visitors back home—or, perhaps, residents to work.

It’s difficult to escape noise completely when so many of us live on either side of that busy corridor, Highway 75. And the rat-tat-tat of construction hammers and the distant buzz of snow guns pumping manmade snow into the air make up vital parts of our economy. Fortunately, however, there are a few things Wood River Valley residents can do to create an oasis of peace and quiet.

Eiron Schofield, business developer for Living Architecture in Ketchum, recommends starting with your home. For Schofield, that means creative solutions, such as Durisol—an insulated concrete form made of recycled wood chips pressed into cement to resemble large cinder blocks. The company that makes Durisol, which provides foot-thick sound panels to block noise on freeways, has outfitted a couple of homes on Warm Springs Road with sound-dampening forms.

“When you’re inside those homes, you would never know you’re next to the road,” says Schofield. “The forms don’t contain foam or polystyrene or any toxic elements. They withstand freezing and thawing without any loss of performance. And they last forever—they don’t rot or decay.”


Several homes opposite the Big Wood Golf Course along Highway 75 north of Ketchum have literally turned their backs on the highway, facing their windows away from the road. Small hillsides or berms between home and highway also deflect sound.

Building a home below ground level offers the 21st-century equivalent protection of a moat: the noise is deflected by the embankments before it ever reaches the house. In contrast, noise from the highway rises to assault those living on benches. The houses in Starweather, for instance, sit below the highway, and you’d hardly know the road is just a few hundred feet away; but across the highway, in homes that are level with or above the road, it’s a different story.

The difference is graphically illustrated at Memory Park, on the corner of Main Street and Sixth Avenue in Ketchum. The sunken garden gently dips below grade, and just enough of the traffic noise is deflected to make a picnic in the park quite pleasant. A water feature at the center of the park also helps mask unwanted sound.

Berms and walls—the counterpart to ducking below grade—can also deflect noise, but they must be at least 25 feet high and extend farther than one’s own property line to be an effective barrier. What’s more, berms have earned the disapproval of some because they block the view from the highway.

“I feel the berm is overused here—our roadway is becoming a tunnel,” says Dean Hernandez, owner of Gardenspace, a landscape design firm. “And we could do a better job of building the berms we do build, so that we don’t feel as if we’re living in a manmade world. A well-designed berm undulates like a mountain range. Too many of the existing berms look unnatural—like long snakes. We should take our cue from nature: mountains and hillsides are not just flat bumps. They have character to them.”

Combat unwanted noise with more pleasant sounds . . . a small waterfall or fountain.

Walls—particularly brick and concrete walls—are even more effective noise blockers than berms. Although they can reduce noise by 10 to 15 decibels, cutting loudness in half, they generally rank even farther down the aesthetics list.

Whether you go with berms, walls or fences, it’s important to include plants—on both sides, if possible. Plants do more than cut down on noise pollution; they cut down on air pollution, as well. Homeowners should strive for a mix of tall trees, midsize trees, and shrubs, says Mark Palmer, nursery manager for Webb Landscaping. Palmer preaches a three-layered system that includes a grouping of evergreens such as Colorado spruce, Norway spruce, Ponderosa pine, and Scotch pine.

Evergreens block noise better than other kinds of trees, especially during the winter months, when other trees have lost their leaves. Additionally, they offer the benefit of blocking the wind, cutting down on the number of times paper napkins blow off your patio table in summer.

On either side of the evergreens, consider planting a group of midsize (about 8-to-10-foot tall) deciduous trees such as sugar maple and aspen. Finish off with smaller trees such as dogwoods and crabapples, and add shrubs to reduce noise at the bottom. “I like to use berry trees and shrubs to attract birds and other wildlife,” suggests Hernandez. “Creating a wildlife habitat just enhances your living environment that much more.”

You can also combat noise—whether from the highway, from construction activity, or from something else—with more pleasant noise. A recirculating pond as small as three feet by five feet, with a small waterfall or gurgling fountain, can create soothing white noise to mask annoying manmade shrieks and roars.

“You enhance your living environment beyond blocking noise,” says Hernandez. “You stimulate your visual senses, your sense of smell, your hearing…and enhance your quality of life.” Remember, though, that you do have to take small children into consideration, and that there is some maintenance involved in keeping a pond clean.

Whether you go with berms, walls or fences, it’s important to include plants—on both sides, if possible.

Still, some say we need to do more to stop noise at its source. The Ketchum City Council made a move in that direction a few years ago, when members sought to preserve evening peace by restricting construction work after hours. The airport has tried to restrict the older, louder corporate jets that take off and land here. But there could be further solutions. Some communities have laws restricting jake brakes, for example, and police in Daytona Beach have cracked down on motorcyclists who disable their mufflers.

Restricting the numbers of cars traveling along the highway and their speed can help, too. Ketchum landscape architect Dick Meyer has long pressed for a high-rise rail line from Twin Falls to Ketchum as a way to cut down on highway congestion and noise. At 150 miles per hour, a rail line sitting above the bike path could whisk workers and skiers from Twin Falls to Ketchum in a half-hour.

“The real solution to our noise problems is to get cars off the road,” Meyer says. “We may be thinking a long way ahead, but you have to start somewhere.”

Karen Bossick is still trying to come up with a way to block out highway noise while hiking or skiing the Harriman Trail and other roadside trails.



This article appears in the Fall 2005 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.